NEWARK, N.J. - Perhaps next season, especially if everything works out right in free agency, the Knicks' highest-paid player won't be the least wanted. But while it seems clear veteran Larry Hughes won't have a place in Mike D'Antoni's rotation at the start of this season, the situation doesn't appear to be nearly as combustible as it was a year ago when Stephon Marbury was buried on the bench.

And that's why the rush to buy out Hughes' $13.6 million salary, just to get him off the bench. Before last night's 94-92 win over the Nets in the preseason finale at the Prudential Center, Donnie Walsh scoffed at reports that suggested a buyout could be on the horizon.

"Just because you guys write it," Walsh said, "doesn't mean we're going to do it."

And D'Antoni seemed annoyed when he was asked to explain why Hughes, who made just 1 of 23 field-goal attempts in 15 minutes per game in the preseason, apparently has been excluded from the rotation.

"I'm not getting into that," D'Antoni said. "If you want a story, write the story. I'm going to play the guys I think I need to play to win. He knows that, everybody knows that. But I can't get into every nuance and every little thing. I'm not going to comment on that stuff."

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Hughes, who will be a free agent this summer, has said he doesn't want to cause any problems and may prefer to play the good soldier with the hope the Knicks, who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday, look to trade him to a playoff team (for another expiring contract, of course) before the February deadline or buy him out then so he can sign with a contender. After he sat out the duration of Tuesday's preseason win over the Celtics, Hughes played 16:59 last night with mostly the bench on the floor. Hughes missed all three of his shots and twice fouled Courtney Lee off purposely-missed free throws in the game's final seconds. Lee then accidentally missed with 1.1 seconds left, clinching the win for the Knicks.

D'Antoni explained that Hughes is caught up in some numbers, which is another way to say he prefers to use defensive-minded rookie Toney Douglas, who had a terrific game with 13 points in 16:59. "So you add up the minutes, I can't play any more," D'Antoni said. "And a veteran should have 20 to 25 to really express himself. I don't have those minutes. I could play him 30 minutes and then I won't play [Danilo} Gallinari, and I don't think that's good."

Notes & quotes: Chris Duhon led the Knicks (5-2 in preseason) with 21 points, but his turnover troubles continued with six after he committed five against Boston . . . Chris Douglas-Roberts had 26 points for the Nets, who finished the preseason 0-6.